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Remember your reader

When you’re starting out writing your Master’s dissertation or doctoral thesis you may find yourself struggling to make sense of your work to yourself, in words. Your first attempts may simply be about finding a way to make your work understandable – to yourself. But there comes a time, hopefully sooner rather than later, when you have to start thinking of your reader. Have you included appropriate explanation, and connected your argument sufficiently, that your supervisors and examiners can follow your thinking?

For four years I worked as a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund at the University of Bath. During that time I saw many dozens of Master’s and doctoral students for one-to-one tutorials, and I read many paragraphs of their work. A common problem was that they did not pay enough attention to their reader. They misjudged certain knowledge on the reader’s part, or there were jumps or gaps in their arguments. They assumed that their readers knew more than they really did, or that they would simply ‘fill in’ for any gaps or deficiencies in the writing. That is not good enough.

So, how can you be sure that your reader understands your work? First of all, make sure it is in a good state to show them. A useful tip is to read your work out loud. Does it flow properly? Do any sentences need shortening? Are any words or punctuation missing? When you read your work out loud you will pick up problems with your writing that you would never do when simply reading it ‘in your head’.

Then, when you’re ready, get one or two fellow students to read your work for understanding. Ask them to comment specifically on the structure of the section you’ve given them, your argument and your writing style. Can they readily follow your reasoning? Where do they struggle? When you’ve improved your work, based on their feedback, show it to supervisors to get their feedback.

Novelist Stephen King in his book On Writing famously said, ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.’ To this I would add, ‘get quality feedback.’ When you act in response to good feedback, your writing will gradually improve. And you will find yourself writing more and more with your reader in mind.

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